Twilight stared back at her friend through eyes so white they could be mistaken for saucers. She hadn’t wanted to believe what her ears had been telling her. The fog from before had returned with a vengeance, the thick strands of discordant thought gumming up the works of her brain until it felt as though it had stalled.
It couldn’t be true... but it was, regardless. She narrowed her eyes to mere slits. She was struggling with another painful paradox, once again feeling as though she were slowly being compressed into a single point of disbelief. She was staring at a living impossibility, an existential threat to her memories given life.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
The mare looked exactly like Applejack. The coat, the mane, the freckles, the cutie mark – everything was as Twilight remembered. Those familiar green eyes met her worried glances with a look of concern. Instead of a dusty stetson the cowgirl went hatless, her blond ponytail resting on a lab coat identical to Doctor Rose’s. Applejack kept her smile plastered on her face as Twilight mutely scrutinized the orange mare, failing to mask the disquiet at the odd examination. The heavy silence continued to grow more ferocious until it threatened to consume all three ponies.
“So, um, I know you probably don’t remember me, Twilight,” Applejack said with a cough. She took a few cautious steps towards her, as if Twilight were a farm animal she didn’t want to risk spooking. Except for the worried slant to her eyebrows and the slight tremor at the corner of her lips, everything in her body language presented a calm and reassuring image. “My name is Doctor Applejack. But you don’t have to worry none about the title. Applejack is fine. Or even A.J., if you want.”
Applejack’s voice had pierced the silence. And into the void rose a thousand voices speaking at once. Twilight’s mind became an opera hall beset by a bellicose chorus, every singer attempting to drown out the others with their own song. It was a cacophony of different theories and disorganized guesswork, the pure noise enough to squash everything else.
Changelings: I’m sure of it! It was the only answer that made sense. Every aspect of Applejacks behavior – the way she walked, the way she held herself – was too perfect to be anything else. The only element that didn’t fit was the accent; it was there, just muted. It was a near flawless imitation otherwise. But it still wasn’t good enough. Now if only I could remove whatever is on my horn, I could expose these insects for what they really were. I could fight back, and then-
Twilight continued to sit mutely, the only movement that of her head as she tracked Applejack’s progress across the room. Applejack glanced at Dreamer, arching an eyebrow in confusion. The stallion shrugged. “She was talking just before you came in,” he pointed out. “Let’s just give her a minute.”
Brainwashed: I’m sure of it! They could have gotten to Applejack first. If they were going to all this effort to deceive me, they could easily have done the same thing with my friend. They could have brainwashed Applejack, tricked her into believing their lies. Once they got her to believe it, they could then use her to convince the rest of us as well, slowly brainwashing us all one at a time. I just need to break through to her, convince her that-
“Twilight? Darlin’? Are you feeling okay?” she asked.
Discord: I’m sure of it! This whole experience just screams of his chaotic magic. He has returned, but this time he decided to get rid of the elements first, before we had a chance to act. And instead of just cursing us, he is trying to break our will to resist. If we give in to the delusions and accept them, then we will never escape! I just need to try and find a hole in his deception-
“Twilight?” Dreamer echoed Applejack, joining his fellow doctor to watch Twilight carefully. “Come on Twilight, say something.”
Magical curse: I’m just sure of it! This is too real to be a simple deception. Right now I’m probably sitting in a real hospital suffering from some sort of arcane affliction. This world is just a twisted nightmare created from my own memories. But then, if I am really sick, how can I escape? Or am I just trapped here until the real doctors manage to cure me? No, if it’s a magical illness, it can still be affected by the mind, so I can-
Twilight jerked up and glanced blindly around her, as if just awoken from a nap she hadn’t realized she was taking. The crowd of voices dropped away to a low buzz, a persistent mosquito content to simply circle at the back of her mind. She found both ponies standing before her with matching expressions of worry.
“Twilight, are y’ feeling okay?” Applejack repeated in a normal tone, her eyes roaming over Twilight’s face.
It took Twilight a moment to find her voice. “Y-Yes, yes. I’m… fine, Applejack, I’m fine. Really, I’m perfectly fine.”
“Oh, so you remember her?” Dreamer asked, a hint of relief sliding across both doctors’ faces.
“Yes, I… I remember you, Applejack,” said Twilight, nodding at her friend. Technically it was half true.
Applejack’s face split into a broad grin. It was the first honest smile Twilight had seen in awhile. “Oh, well that’s a blessing!”
“But not everything is the same,” she added slowly. “Some things are… different.”
“Oh? Well, that’s not unexpected, really. Amnesia is going to leave some gaps in your memory, after all,” the (former) farm-pony said. “How about we start off nice and easy then, sugarcube. You just ask me any questions you might have, and I’ll do my best to answer them.”
Twilight paused. Which question first? She needed to test this “Doctor” Applejack and see what she knew. Any plans for escape required information before they could be formed. Seeking inspiration in her lifelong passion, the unicorn tried to recall how the hardboiled detectives in her novels would have started an interrogation. Dozens of books flashed through her mind, each as useless as the last – playing “bad cop” and slamming Applejack’s head into a desk was not a viable option, for many reasons.
Applejack continued watching her as the silence dragged on, threatening to become another awkwardly long moment. Twilight felt an irrational moment of panic. This was her opportunity to get information, and she was stuck as mute as a filly on her first day of school. She needed a question – now!
“Where’s your hat?” Twilight nearly shouted.
Quiet followed the question. The two mares stared blankly at one another, their expressions identical.
Seriously? That’s what I'm starting off with? Twilight felt like burying her head in her hooves as her cheeks flushed red. Improvisation was not one of her strong suites.
Applejack’s eyes twinkled in amusement, and even Dreamer was grinning. “I don’t wear it when on duty, sugarcube. It’s not really suitable for sterile hospital work, if you know what I mean.”
“That makes sense,” said Twilight, doing her best to ignore the heat in her face. “So... a doctor, huh? When did that happen?”
“I graduated from Manehattan School of Medicine two years ago. Since then, I’ve been taking my residency here at Broadhoof.” Twilight blinked. It was rude and unfair to her friend, she knew, but the idea of Applejack attending such a prestigious university – a medical school, no less! – was difficult for her to swallow. She couldn’t picture the cowgirl doing research in a library. The thought of Applejack’s golden mane almost hidden behind a large medical textbook was too foreign a concept to take seriously, and she nearly laughed.
But Applejack was entirely serious. Whatever humor Twilight had felt melted away, replaced by a sense of creeping dread. Applejack was such a terrible liar, Twilight was certain that something of that deception would have presented itself. There was no doubt and no deceit on that face.
“So I guess that Big Mac is running Sweet Apple Acres, then?”
“Hey, you remembered!” Applejack declared, happily turning back to Dreamer. “It sounds like she’s getting’ better already, don’t you think?”
Dreamer glanced up from his watch and nodded in agreement. “It sure does!”
Both ponies beamed at her with the same patronizing smiles all the doctors seemed to wear, their grins as fake as the hospital they worked in. They were obviously part of the official bedside manner, something meant to express a soothing air of calm friendliness. Instead it made them seem like they were talking down to Twilight, treating her like a sick filly that needed to be dealt with carefully. The condescension inherent in those voices wasn’t far from being deliberate mockery.
Twilight’s frustration fizzled away. It was annoying, but there wasn’t much she could do about it short of screaming – which, she was fairly sure, wouldn’t help her argument that she wasn’t crazy. She shifted her thoughts elsewhere. Although it wasn’t much, Twilight found some comfort in the idea that there still was a pony called Big Mac working on a farm. However twisted and confused this nightmare might be, at least some things were still the same.
“The farm is doing pretty well now, too,” Applejack continued. “With my paycheck we’re paying off the debt pretty fast.”
“Debt? What debt?” Twilight looked at Applejack disbelievingly. “You’ve got more customers than you can handle. Since when did the Apples have money problems?”
Applejack couldn’t keep from rolling her eyes. “From the loans, of course. Remember, we were just talkin’ about the bank loans a week ago and…” she blinked “… you would have no way of rememberin’ that right now.”
It was the third stretch of awkward silence in as many minutes, although this time it was Applejack’s turn to blush. “Right. I’m sorry, sugarcube. I guess I keep forgetting that you don’t remember everything.” Applejack coughed into her hoof, the painfully transparent attempt to mask her embarrassment just highlighting the pink flush of her cheeks instead. She really was a terrible liar. “Well, we have debts from my education. Universities aren’t cheap, after all.”
“So if you went to medical school, then why is Big Mac stuck back on the farm? Why didn’t he get to go to college?”
“He is not stuck on the farm!” Applejack snapped, her nostrils flaring.
Twilight jerked back as if slapped, surprised by the venom in her friend’s voice. She glanced at Dreamer in confusion, but he was already staring at his coworker with a reproachful frown.
Applejack gasped. The angry fire in her eyes was snuffed out in a second, replaced by a look of shameful remorse. “Oh Twilight, I’m so sorry! I just, I’m so so sorry! I didn’t mean to snap at you like that! You didn’t mean anything by that and… and… shoot, even if you had known, it wouldn’t make it right. I should never have talked to you like that.” Her voice echoed her shame as she apologized profusely, sounding as surprised by her outburst as Twilight had been.
“It’s okay, Applejack,” Twilight said, unable to keep confusion from seeping into her words. The apology was excessive. Sure, Applejack had been short with her, but she was acting as though she had… Twilight’s eyes narrowed, her jaw clenching tight. She’s acting like she had yelled at a little filly.
Screaming and throwing a fit didn’t seem as objectionable as before.
“No, it’s not okay. I know you’re upset, and you have every right to be,” Applejack sighed, failing to grasp the source of Twilight’s sullen glare. She glanced down at her hooves sheepishly. “Big Mac is a… touchy subject, but I should never have reacted that way. You did nothin’ wrong, Twilight. It was rude and unprofessional, and I’m plum ashamed of myself.”
“It’s nothing, Applejack. Honestly. This wasn’t that big of a deal, so no worries.”
Dreamer coughed softly, getting their attention. “Well A.J., like you said, Twilight just didn’t know. So why don’t you tell her all about it? It might help her to remember something of her own past, if you were to talk about yours.” He checked his watch again. “Besides, you’ve got the time. Dinner isn’t for another few hours.”
“That’s… not a bad idea, actually.” Applejack turned back to the unicorn, a hint of sadness peeking out from behind her smile, like a shy foal hiding behind its mother’s legs. “You don’t remember it now, but we used to spend a lot of time talking. How about it, Twilight? Are you okay if I spend some time talking with you?”
“I would appreciate that,” Twilight answered with a modicum of sincerity. She needed information if she were to escape, and the two doctors seemed poised to offer her what she needed on a gilded platter. As the great general Neapolitan once said, ‘never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake’. Hopefully, whatever this other Applejack had to say about her past might shed some light on what had brought Twilight into this… reality? Dreamscape? Nightmare?
World, Twilight decided. It seemed the most fitting. After all, this isn’t reality, and you wake up from nightmares eventually. With the terminology sorted out, Twilight readjusted her mental checklist accordingly. After years of doing things methodically and with fastidious attention to detail, the use of lists to organize her personal life had become a near compulsion.
Habit! It’s not a compulsion, but a habit! She didn’t care what Doctor Rose said; she did not have obsessive-compulsive personality disorder! Diligence and foresight are virtues, she thought, hammering the point home with a finality born of righteous desperation.
When Spike had teased her about her com- habits, it had been a joke between good friends. But Doctor Rose’s words, just like that terrible photograph, were personal attacks that called into question her very sanity. His groundless condemnation of Twilight was slander of the worst kind.
“Well then, just let me get comfortable first, and then I’ll tell you all the stuff you might not remember,” Applejack said as she cheerfully slid the chair out from beneath the desk. It was as worn and pitted as the rest of the room’s furniture, and there was a moment’s doubt that the spindly wooden legs could support the mare’s weight when she planted it beside Twilight’s bed. It whimpered as she settled onto it, but after a few trembling protests it held steady.
And then Applejack began to talk.
So, I guess I should start at the beginin’, huh? You probably don’t remember any of it now, but we used to spend loads of time talkin’. When I arrived at Broadhoof, I was assigned to escorting the patients during their time out in the yard. You know, give the new pony somethin’ easy and time-consumin’ to see how she does. As it turned out I was assigned to escort you on my first day, and so we talked about all sorts of things.
Well, that's not entirely true. When I first met you, you didn’t talk much. At all, really. You were as silent as a snake without a hiss. Being a new doctor, I was pretty dang nervous, so I just chattered away like a squirrel regardless. I’d talk about life back on the farm, my time in Manehattan, and even my years in school. You never said anythin’ back, so I just kept talkin’ and talkin’ to fill the silence, until the two hours had passed and it was time for supper.
I reckon I nearly talked your ears off that first day. Afterwards I wondered if you had even heard a word I said. After all, you had just been quietly following beside me as we walked along the fence. After a few days...
You know, I can tell you don’t remember any of that. I think I have a better idea, actually. Why don’t I just tell you about myself, so you can hear those stories again? Maybe something I say will help, you know, jog your memories some.
So let’s see… Well, I was born on the Sweet Apple Acres farm, just outside Ponyville. My parents were good, honest pony folk, simple farmers whose hard work on the family farm had really helped build it up. I guess you do remember by older brother Big Macintosh, but I also have a baby sister, Apple Bloom. Oh, you remember her name too? Super! I guess telling you about my past again is the right thing to do.
Anyway, life was pretty good, I reckon. Sure, growing up on a farm means lots of work, even when you’re just a foal, but I never had much room to complain. And farm work was always secondary to school work. It always was our parents’ dream that we might all get a good education, probably because neither of them ever finished school. ‘Bein’ an earth pony don’t mean you gots to be a dummy,’ Pa used to tell us. Our parents were very adamant about us doin’ well in school, and they’d give us extra chores if our grades weren’t up to snuff. So, yeah, they took our education real serious like.
We did pretty well for farm foals, too. Shoot, Big Mac was planning on becoming an engineer, back before my parents passed away. He always did have a good head for figures and such. Not much of a conversationalist, but I don’t doubt that he would have made a great architect or somethin’ just as prestigious. I’ll tell you, they were so proud of him when he got accepted to Canterlot Polytechnic, even Pa was crying. Big Mac was the first Apple since we’d settled near Ponyville to get accepted into a university.
College wasn’t cheap, though, and we made do as best we could. Cutting back here, working harder there, that sort of thing. But after Pa got sick, well, Macintosh had to spend more and more time on the farm, lendin’ a hoof. Pa tried his best to keep working, but soon enough the cancer had him bedridden. Apple Bloom was still in diapers back then, and I wasn’t much older than she is now, so Big Mac, Granny, and Ma had to do all the harvesting together.
Ma tried her best to keep Big Mac in school though, never lettin’ him know just how much she was doing around the farm. She forbid him from dropping any classes, so he only came down on the weekends to help out. And she’d get up long before sunrise so she could do some of his chores as well. She didn’t want him bein’ so tired that when he went back to school, it could hurt his grades. Like I said, they really thought our educations were important.
Big Mac kept offering to quit school so he could do more to help the family. He said he could just take a semester or two off, but she wouldn’t hear of it. It would have been for the best if she had, in retrospect. But then, as my optometrist friends always said, hindsight is twenty-twenty.
I think she had convinced herself that Pa was going to get better. She wanted to keep everything as normal as possible, so when he got well it would be like nothin’ had changed at all. And so every day, week after week, she worked her hooves to the bone doing the chores of three ponies. It left her so tired that she’d pass out after supper.
So when Pa finally passed away, she was just too worn out t’ handle it. The doctors said it was severe exhaustion, along with some other things I was too young to understand or remember. I think it was the guilt that hurt her the most. She had been so busy trying to work the farm that she never had time to see him. And being unable to say goodbye is what I reckon’ broke her heart, because after the funeral she was just a shell of a pony. She was physically there, but empty.
That’s when Big Mac finally did drop out of school, just a year or so before he would have graduated. He gave up his dreams and his future, so he could take care of the family. And he… he never complained about it either, Celestia bless him. Not for one gosh darn minute. I tell you Twilight, Big Mac is the best stallion in Equestria. A lot of ponies underestimate him, thinkin’ he’s just a bit slow because he is so quiet all the time, but they’re dead wrong. He knew exactly what he was giving up, and he did it without a second’s hesitation. That takes real heart. That’s love.
It was right before I started high school that Ma finally passed away. After Pa had died she had just shut down, and we had taken her to Broadhoof for care. She barely spoke, and mostly just lay in bed, starin’ out the window. Whenever I visited, it was hard to think of her as being the same mare I remembered from back when I was barely a filly. The strength and vitality was gone. She was like those husks of once-fruitful apple trees that had slowly withered away, still clinging to life by the narrowest of margins.
Life was really tough during those years. I was finally old enough to really start pulling my weight around the farm, but Big Mac wouldn’t allow me to sacrifice my schoolin’ for the farm as well. I used to throw the biggest fits, I did, complainin’ about how unfair it was that I couldn’t skip school to help out like he did. But he was as adamant about me gettin’ an education as Ma and Pa had been. And Granny backed him up completely. Both of them weren’t going to allow me and Apple Bloom to miss out on the futures our parents had dreamed of.
I used to resent Big Mac’s decision. It wasn’t until I had matured that I realized how much he had surrendered to keep me and Apple Bloom in school. Big Mac had sacrificed his future for the family, and he wouldn’t allow me to do the same. I saw it as my duty, to him and the memory of my parents, to get a good education.
Having lost both my parents to illness is what convinced me to go into medicine. After I graduated high school I set about applying to medical schools all over Equestria, and my grades were good enough to earn me a small scholarship to boot. However it was still true that university isn’t cheap. Even with my scholarship, nearly every school was far too expensive for us to afford, both in terms of tuition and in housing. The reason I chose Manehattan was almost entirely because my Aunt and Uncle Orange offered free room and board in the city. Without their help I’d never had been able to become a doctor.
Now I’d spent some time with the Oranges, back when I was a filly. Uncle Orange had always been a bit unfriendly towards my Pa, blamin’ him for taking his sister away to live out in the sticks, but they were good folk. Sure, they were what you might call ‘high society’ types, but they were still family, and they were determined to help me out as best they could.
We Apples don’t accept charity though, not when we can do something about it, so I accepted on the condition that I be allowed to help pull my weight around the apartment. It was charity in all but name, considerin’ how I was doing some light cleanin’ up and such while they were housing and feeding a full grown mare, but it helped make me feel less like I was taking advantage of their hospitality.
University life… wasn’t easy. I had been quite naïve when I arrived, and the first real shock was how biased the system was against non-unicorn doctors. It wasn’t like being a mail-mare or a guard or a factory worker, where any pony can succeed and do well. Magical ability is an unspoken prerequisite for some fields. Surgeons, for example, are almost exclusively unicorns.
I chose to go into psychiatry, mostly because of havin’ had to watch Ma deteriorate over the years. There was one visit, the last time I heard her speak, when I had brought Apple Bloom with me so she could see Ma again. She was weak and sickly, but she was happy to see us. Apple Bloom ran up to her and they smiled and hugged. And then she looked Apple Bloom right in the eyes and said, with a broad smile on her face, “Oh Applejack, you’re gettin’ so big! Be sure t’ take care of your little sister, you un’nerstand?” Trapped within her memories, she couldn’t even recognize her family any more.
Thankfully Apple Bloom was too young to remember it, but I cried all night once we left. It was that moment, if anything, that made me realize my future. If there was anything I could do to help others from feeling the same sort of pain, I wanted to do what I could. That's how I ended up specializing in the treatment of hallucinations and delusions. Big Mac once joked that I did it because I was too darn honest for my own good, and I wanted to help the patients see ‘the truth’. There might be a sliver of truth to that, as I can have a bit of a black-and-white view on the world.
So I found my calling in psychiatry. Because psychiatry has plenty of non-unicorns in it, I avoided the worst of the prejudice. But even in Manehattan, which is as metropolitan and multi-cultural a city as there is in Equestria, I still got dirty looks from unicorns who scoffed at the idea of an earth pony becomin’ a doctor.
Of course, that just made me work even harder! Us Apples are stubborn folk, and the thought of them looking down their noses at me just because I didn’t have a horn really got me going. I wasn’t the smartest pony in school, but I was angry and I worked as hard as I ever had at the farm. I was determined to show them up.
And boy, did I! I wasnt the top of my class, but I was darned close. Twilight, the satisfaction I felt when I was standin’ up on that stage as they read out my accomplishments… it was something real magical. And after graduation I applied for residency here at Broadhoof. After all, it was close to home, and because Ma had been here during the last couple years of her life I felt a bit of a connection with the place.
Now I know that I’ve said it a few times, but I’m gonna say it again: going to a university is mighty expensive. And while I was away at school, Big Mac had to run the farm on his own. Apple Bloom was old enough to do some of the chores, but she couldn’t do too much, not while still havin’ to go to school and such. And Granny? Well, she’s too old to be doing a lot of physical work on the farm these days, even though she’s still healthy for a mare of her years.
A couple of fast-talking city ponies came to the farm offerin’ some fancy machine of theirs that was supposed to speed up the whole process and take care of some of the work, but Big Mac and Granny wouldn’t consider it. Apple family cider is made by hoof with love and care, and making it faster wasn’t worth losing that special somethin’ that really makes it so darn delicious.
Instead we ended up taking out loans to help pay for my tuition and books and such. Some of the fields went fallow just because we couldn’t work them. Already in debt because of the tuition, there weren’t any bits available for hired hooves. Money was real tight. It still is, really. And even though it was my responsibility to try and make the best of myself, I still felt guilty for going off to college while Big Mac and Apple Bloom stayed on the farm. We owed the bank a lot of money, and if there had been a bad harvest or two, we might have lost it all while I was away in the Big City. But again, Big Mac never once blamed me for anything, no matter how bad things got.
Thankfully, now that I’m outa school I’m earning a paycheck as well. In fact, with my salary, we’ve actually been able to afford some hired help for this year’s harvest. Sure, Big Mac will grumble a bit about them not being as handy around the farm as an Apple would be, but that's just part of his character. He might have a heart of gold, but he’s a proud and stubborn Apple, through and through. I’m back livin’ on the farm too, which means I can help out during my days off. We’ve reopened the fields we had left fallow now that we have the horsepower to work them all, so this year’s crop should help repay some of our debts.
So, what else? Oh, right. Almost forgot I was telling you about back when we first met, Twilight. Well, like I said, you didn’t say much initially. But since I was the new mare, it was part of my job to help escort our patients around the yard for their daily exercise. And so, I would spend the time talking, you’d spend it listening, and we’d stroll around the yard enjoying the sun.
I didn’t know if you enjoyed our time together, or if you were even listening, but it helped me to think I had a kind ear and somepony to talk to. And boy, did I need it. School teaches you a lot of things Twilight, but a diploma and years of training doesn’t prepare you for the reality of working within a psychiatric hospital. It can break you down, if you don’t have an outlet for it. I’d thought that, since I’d had a rough childhood and I’d watched my Ma succumb to dementia, that I was well prepared. But I sure learned pretty quickly that no, no I wasn’t.
A month after I had arrived, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I knew the routines, I was getting familiar with patients like you, and nothing major had happened yet. Doctor Rose was impressed enough with my progress that I was assigned a small bi-weekly therapy group to run. It was nothing major, just a chance to get some of our stable but introverted patients to spend some time with other ponies. One patient was this quiet pegasus mare. She was so terribly anxious that she would sit as far away from the rest of the group as she could, and she’d freeze up and go almost catatonic whenever anypony tried to talk to her. She’d only talk to me during those sessions, and then it was just one-word answers.
What? Yeah, Dreamer, she’s the one that they let keep all the birds. Don’t call her that! She has a name, you know. No, I can’t say it aloud, not with Twilight here. But regardless, it certainly isn’t something as rude as “birdgirl.” I swear, you’ve been readin’ too many of them articles in the papers. One doctor tells a reporter with a flair for the dramatic about a patient with some birds, and all of a sudden she’s raising hundreds of eagles in the attic! What’s worse is how many ponies believed it. I even had somepony ask me when I was shopping if the “Birdgirl of Broadhoof” was actually a distant relative of the Princesses locked away in a tower because she was mad!
Yeah, I know you didn’t mean it like that, Dreamer. And I’m sorry for snappin’ at you and all, but we need to treat her with respect. Most of you doctors who work outside the psych-ward have some pretty strong misconceptions about our patients, always believing whatever story you hear.
So, where was I? Okay, yeah, the group was fine, despite the extreme shyness all around. We were just startin’, and the idea was to keep things nice and calm so we could expose them to constructive social interaction. We had little show-and-tell events where they could present a drawing or picture they had done. This pegasus couldn’t bring herself to speak, so I would hold up her item to show the others. Which, obviously, defeated the point of the exercise. On a recommendation from Doctor Rose I suggested she bring one of her birds to show and tell. The mare always did seem more comfortable with animals, and she accepted.
So one day she produces a small cage with this lovely yellow canary inside. She opens the cage and it hops out onto her foreleg. Then she starts tellin’ the others in a voice barely above a whisper about her bird. It was only a few sentences, and even then nopony could hear anything anyway, but it was more than she had said in every other meeting combined. I was feeling pretty dang happy at the progress, and considered havin’ her introduce a different bird every meeting. Anything to get her talkin’, you know?
But then one of the patients, another pegasus, takes to the air and zooms in closer, hovering a yard away to get a better look at the bird. This startles the bird and it shoots off in the other direction – flying right at another patient’s face. Before anyone can so much as blink the pony screams in fear and takes a wild swing at the bird, knocking it to the ground. The mare panics and rushes to the bird’s side while I have to get the orderlies to help restore order. So we send the patients back to their rooms, including the mare whose by now just crying and clutching her injured bird. One of the doctors with some veterinarian practice goes to see what he can do, and we get on with the day.
The next morning I get stopped by Doctor Rose before I can even change into my scrubs. He brings me into the office and tells me that we need to talk. I was expectin’ him to chew me out for what had happened the day before. Instead, it turns out that the bird had died from its injuries. The mare was inconsolable after that, weepin’ and moanin’ and tuggin’ at her mane. It took them hours to get her calmed down, but eventually they managed to get her into bed.
However, when the orderlies go in to wake her up for breakfast, they find her covered in blood and barely breathin’. She’d broken the small mirror that had been in the bird’s cage and had tried to kill herself with the shards of glass. Because she had been so stable for so long, no one ever imagined that those tiny little mirrors could be a risk, or even that she might attempt suicide.
Thankfully the cuts hadn’t been too deep and she survived, but I remember feeling so insignificant at that moment. He tried to tell me it wasn’t my fault, and that I had been doing my best for the patients when events had conspired against me. It didn’t help the sense of guilt I felt. I might not have been at fault, but I was responsible for my patients. A patient I had been helping tried to commit suicide. There is no class you can take that will prepare you for feeling that ashamed of yourself. That was my first real wake-up call about what my new career entailed.
I needed a pony I could talk too. Now, because I’d been off in Manehattan for so long, I hardly knew any pony in town. The month since I moved back in didn’t offer much of a chance to meet new ponies, considering how busy I was between my job and the farm. All my school friends were off doing their own internships far from Ponyville, and the staff here aren’t exactly the most friendly bunch to new doctors. No offense, Dreamer.
Sure, I always had my family, but I couldn’t talk to them about that. Apple Bloom’s too young to hear such stories. And Big Mac? We talk about the farm and how things are going, but I can’t talk to him about how I’m feeling or the problems I’m facing. How do any of my problems stack up to his?
So really Twilight, you were my outlet. I could talk to you about anything, from my lack of friends to the stresses of the job, and you were there to listen. Again, at first I didn’t know if you listened or even cared what I said, but it was a relief to just be able to talk at someone freely.
I didn’t realize you actually enjoyed it until a week after we had started our walks, when I had a few days off. Doctor Rose told me you had asked about me when I didn’t show up, and seemed a bit upset at my absence. Then he handed me something you had created in your arts and crafts session.
It was only when Applejack paused that Twilight realized she was leaning forward in her bed, hanging onto every word. Reaching into one of her pockets, Applejack produced a folded piece of purple construction paper. She offered it Twilight, who glanced up quizzically before taking the object from her.
Applejack nodded and gestured with a hoof. “Go ahead and open it up.” Twilight had barely moved her hooves when Applejack inhaled sharply, freezing her in place. “Carefully!” she added as she watched Twilight’s hooves.
Twilight sniffed before proceeding with exaggerated care. It turned out to be a very prudent choice. She had expected something simple that fit their view of her: dried pasta glued to paper, or a crayon drawing perhaps.
What she held was beautiful. Fragile, yes, but still magnificent. It unfurled like a purple and orange flower blooming in her hooves, forming a six-pointed star reminiscent of the one on her flank. Each strip of paper was cut and glued together with an exacting attention to detail. It might have been made from school supplies, but it was an impressive feat.
In the middle of the artificial flower there was a message inscribed upon a small circle of white paper. ‘Hope everything gets easier for you soon! Your friend, Twilight Sparkle’. The thin lines of intricate calligraphy demonstrated more of the careful work that went into its construction. The simplicity in the message made the effort put into the writing more profound.
“That’s something else,” added Dreamer after peeking over to see the item.
Twilight ignored him as she reread the message a few times. She silently handed it back to Applejack. It was her hoofwriting.
“Yeah, it really is,” she smiled as she folded it back up and carefully returned it to one of her pockets. “So after that, Doctor Rose made it part of your therapy to walk with me every day, Twilight. Soon enough you were as talkative as I was. Of course, you wanted to talk about stuff like history or arcane theory – things that were far above my level on the best of days. You’re one smart pony, Twilight, and although I didn’t understand a lot of it, the least I could do was return the favor. I know that you’re still the same mare that listened to all my problems when I didn’t have anywhere else to turn. And although you might not remember any of it right now, I like to think that you’re still my friend.”
Twilight stared at Applejack in the quiet pause that followed the end of the story. She struggled to find her thoughts. How was she supposed to handle this? The story had been filled with errors. There had been some believable elements, but they couldn’t account for all the incongruities that dominated her narrative. Applejack had been so honest, so real, that Twilight couldn’t ignore how invested she had become as she had listened to the mare’s story. There wasn’t any deceit in her words, despite most of them being fabrications. And the flower – her supposed ‘gift’ to this Applejack? It bore all the hallmarks of something Twilight would have made, but she knew she hadn’t made it. What was she supposed to believe?
Without speaking Twilight leaned over towards Applejack. Seated beside her bed, Applejack was close enough that Twilight could bring her nose just inches from her face. She paused there, staring through Applejack’s green eyes as if they were windows into the soul. Their proximity was enough to garner an anxious murmur out of Dreamer. She ignored him fully, her watery eyes locked onto Applejack’s own, searching for something hidden there.
Those few heartbeats dragged on for an eternity. But Twilight’s confusion faded. Eventually she nodded, a barely perceptible movement in the head that was as resolute as a shouted declaration. She had seen enough. She had made up her mind.
Twilight wrapped her foreleg around Applejack and hugged her tightly.
“I’m still your friend, Applejack. I will always be your friend. Whatever happened can’t change that,” she promised Applejack, her voice firm iron even as her tears dampened her Applejack’s coat. “You don’t remember my life, and I don’t remember yours, but I know that it is you in there. I can... I can see it, sense it, feel it. And together we will make things right.”
They embraced like sisters who had been separated for far too long. Whatever the cause that had brought her to this word, Twilight was certain of one thing: Applejack was here with her. She might never be certain about why this had all happened, but she could be confident of one thing: even in a world where her past was considered the delusion of a sick mind, she still had her friends. She had to believe that.
Closing her eyes, Twilight cried silently into Applejack’s shoulder as she held firmly onto her friend. The fear and loneliness that had plagued her since awakening was banished for a few blessed minutes, seeping out through her tears as if she was purging herself of a poison. It didn’t matter if she was still imprisoned, if everyone in her life thought she was crazy, or if her past had been forgotten by all. She could still feel the bonds of friendship there, a comforting fire in the depths of winter. As long as she had that, she could find a way home.
There was nothing fake in Applejack’s smile as she hugged her friend back.